Seema Reza on the Joy of Being (Completely) Alone
“Uncontrollable. They meant the word as a criticism; I wore it as a badge.”
When I was already beyond the acceptable age for make-believe, I invented a game called Apartment. Playing house a few years prior, I’d cooked dinner and scolded imaginary children while waiting for my husband (played by a giant stuffed bear) to come home. I’d talked on the phone and bustled about like I’d seen women do. But in Apartment, I pretended I was renting my bedroom from strangers and that I lived there alone alone alone. Nothing happened in Apartment. I didn’t know anyone; there was no romance.
I joined my friends in “normal” teenage chatter: boys we liked, our weddings, outfits circled in magazines. I experimented with a curling iron and lipstick, high heels from Payless. My retorts were quick, I chose dare over truth, could make anyone laugh. But it felt exhausting, performative.
Apartment was about the absence of social exchange, freedom from measuring myself against others through external determinants of my likability, my goodness, my value. I would go outside, stroll through our suburban neighborhood, and come back in to eat something simple before retiring to my bedroom to read.
Aside from characters in books and movies, the only adult I’d known to live all alone was my uncle Shamim. After stints in each of his brothers’ basements, scandalizing their wives one by one with his alcoholism and the cruelty that rode the fumes of his whiskey breath, he moved into a condo owned by another family member. His last chance to get clean, get it together, get a wife, and grow up.
For my thirteenth birthday, my mother (prudish in all areas but literature) gave me a copy of My Wicked, Wicked Ways, a collection of poems by Sandra Cisneros, my favorite writer. The glossy, lipstick-red dust jacket featured a woman reclining on a green sofa, naked except for white shoes and a book draped over her chest. I read the brazen and bewildering poems and felt braver: Cisneros smoking cigarettes in Paris, refusing to wash any man’s clothes, to bend to anyone, even if she was lonely. Her lines inspired a fierce tenderness toward my own melancholy: “I want and want my grief—each cell must have its fill—and I want more of it.”
In Apartment I answered to no one, owed no one. I was invisible, and sparse. In Apartment I drank coffee and didn’t bother with hot meals. In Apartment, I wasn’t a girl or a woman or a man, just an adult person in jeans and sneakers. I wasn’t pretty, and my teeth weren’t crooked. I felt dark and brooding and weightless and relieved. Floating. At home in myself, performing for no one.
I moved into my first apartment at eighteen: a white-walled, beigecarpeted one-bedroom on the first floor of a brick high-rise. I furnished it with IKEA furniture and secondhand black leather couches. A large bookshelf lined with novels along the living room wall, a queen platform bed with a blue duvet and a blond-wood headboard. The signature arching, five-pronged spider lamp of late 1990s bachelors. No television. With my first paycheck at a legal temp agency, I bought an enormous mirror discounted at a furniture outlet due to the crack in its silver frame.
I was engaged. My fiancé was twenty-one. I’d met him a year before in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I’d been sent to live with my grandparents for being dangerously atheist and non-Muslim and wild and uncontrollable.
Uncontrollable. They meant the word as a criticism; I wore it as a badge. My fiancé saw it as a challenge.
I knew I wouldn’t really be free of my parents until I got married; he couldn’t move to America unless I sponsored him. And really, I loved him.
But I loved that quiet apartment, too. I’d return from long hours spent scanning documents and printing emails for corporate mergers and prepare refrigerated tortellini or fettuccine for dinner. I’d sit in one of the narrow, loosely assembled metal dining chairs and read a novel and smoke a cigarette at the glass table afterward. It was all so luxurious.I harbored a fantasy: to leave my family behind and start a new, simpler life, one in which I was not responsible for anyone else’s experience of the world.
In the complete privacy of that apartment, I had my first orgasm, lying on my back in the bathtub, angled under the rushing faucet, the door closed even though I was alone. I’d felt pleasure during sex, but I’d never reached climax. Only alone, unwatched, could I discover what I needed, the depth of what my body could feel.
When my two sisters and I were children, my mother would show us her wedding jewelry set, her mother’s, my father’s mother’s. My mother collected other pieces of jewelry and put them away for each of her daughters, showing us before locking them in the safe: “When you get married.” I didn’t have the capacity to imagine a story beyond the one Bollywood and Hollywood agreed upon: that once I was pretty enough, Prince Charming in dark sunglasses would smile at me, I would smile back, and my life would begin. The door out of my father’s house would open directly into my husband’s.
I was on borrowed time, eating pasta and reading in silence.
My fiancé’s arrival loomed.
When my first niece was born, the bottom of my heart dropped out like a trapdoor, exposing a capacity for more love than I’d imagined. I’d liked babies well enough before that, but they could be annoying, and motherhood seemed like too much tethering, too much commitment.
My eldest sister and her family lived in a two-bedroom a few floors up in the same building. My brother-in-law was completing his residency and worked thirty-six-hour shifts. My niece wasn’t yet a year old and sometimes I brought her down to my apartment while my sister took a shower or ran to the store. I would sit on the floor and play with her and read to her. I loved that, too. Throughout my teens, I’d loathed the idea of a future and the work of planning for it. But I hadn’t felt anything like the deep satisfaction I experienced soothing my niece to sleep.
I was pregnant within my first month of marriage, and my first son was born just after I turned nineteen. We bought a townhouse.
I had my second son when I was twenty-five, after losing a baby late term the year before. I wanted him so much that my chest was constricted throughout the pregnancy; I vibrated under my skin, clenched with longing.
When I held each of my children, I knew what to do. I liked to talk to them while I chopped vegetables, walk to the library and check out all the picture books on worms, meander with toddlers, make great messes with school-aged children, adopt a firm tone with teenagers. We made a big deal out of birthdays through invented ceremonies and traditions: breakfast in bed, small gifts wrapped individually. I felt so settled when we all sat down to a meal. In the car, windows down, music loud as we screamed the lyrics and laughed—I wanted for nothing.To live with other people is to be responsible for protecting them from your moods.
When my first son was a toddler, I began a decade of haltingly taking classes at the local community college but withdrew whenever my family seemed to suffer from my absence. I was soft, prone to migraines, deeply distant from myself, committed to being a good parent. To being consistent, steady. I never worried about money aloud, or spoke ill of their father, never let them see me weep while stirring a pot on the stove. I paid attention to their interests, made sure they looked and smelled clean, ate balanced meals. I made up games and reward systems to help them do the things they didn’t want to do. I was fun. I was bright. Parenthood demands we protect our children from the bald wound of our absolute terror, that we project a certain confidence about the future in order for them to go about the business of growing up.
I harbored a fantasy, though: to leave my family behind and start a new, simpler life, one in which I was not responsible for anyone else’s experience of the world. I’d rent a studio apartment in a small Midwestern city and find work as a receptionist and wear the same five outfits every week. I imagined transferring the phone line to the machine at 5:00 p.m. on the dot, then going home to eat M&M’s for dinner and read in bed in complete privacy, away from the needs of others, away from the pressure to be happy, to delight and entertain and soothe.
My marriage started on shaky ground and devolved quickly. He was angry; I was resentful. He tried to make me happy and was furious when I wasn’t.
When we were nearing our tenth anniversary, I registered at a university in Vermont for a low-residency BFA in creative writing. In those eight days in Plainfield, I had meals in the cafeteria, access to a large library, and a responsibility to design a study plan for the coming semester. On large paper, I planned what I’d read, what I’d write—what I’d think about. For those days, my work was to live inside my own mind. To consider what I felt, what I thought. At home, in my daily life, silencing my thoughts and feelings was paramount to my survival, paramount to being a parent.
I bought a new copy of My Wicked, Wicked Ways, having lost the original. I opened it and the smoke of who I’d planned to be rose up. I saved money, negotiated custody, and moved out with the bookshelf and a king-size bed my ex-husband didn’t want. My new apartment was ten floors up in another high-rise. I woke before dawn most mornings, walked the few steps from the bedroom to the galley kitchen, where the coffee I’d set the night before brewed on a timer, hours before I had to wake the kids for school or be anywhere myself. I’d watch the sky lighten through the uncurtained, east-facing windows.
Sometimes, I’d walk the fifty yards down the green-carpeted hallway on Friday evening with a bag of groceries, and when the door clicked behind me, I’d turn the deadbolt, pull the chain, and remain inside, unseen, until Sunday. I’d tell everyone I’m working on a very important project and turn off the phone and internet.
I wrote two books in the silence of that apartment. I also ate a lot of edibles and gave myself orgasms and danced to Robyn and LCD Soundsystem and streamed a lot of television. When I’m alone, I can work or lie facedown and cry and no one knows the difference; no one is alarmed by my grief or astonished by my joy. Even as I type this, a decade into this arrangement, it seems miraculous. Wool over everyone’s eyes.
One afternoon, I find myself in the same town as a person I like, our hands almost touching across the table. The yearning is sweet, harmless, theoretical. He compliments my sentences, my unflinching eye, my work in the world, my courage. Not a word about my hair or my smile or my shoulders sculpted by hot yoga.When I’m alone, I can work or lie facedown and cry and no one knows the difference; no one is alarmed by my grief or astonished by my joy.
He waits for a lull in the conversation and tells me he loves me. I look away. I love him, too. I love yearning for him, imagining him thinking of me. What flows between us is mutual admiration and a lack of demands. He waits a beat and says, “You write a lot about what would happen if someone really knew you. What are you so afraid of people knowing?”
1. I often forget to flush the toilet.
2. I respond to my enemies aloud while I roam my apartment.
3. I’m messy but frustrated by others’ messes.
4. I smoke at least one cigarette a day.
5. I hate shaving my legs.
6. I’m annoyed if interrupted while looking out the window.
7. I eat microwaved nachos off a plate balanced on my chest at least once a week.
8. I resent communication if I’m occupied.
9. I’m not as much fun as anyone thinks I am.
10. My temper, I tell him.
But really, I mean: Under the blinking gaze of even one other person, I’m changed. I force a smile then seethe at the effort. It wasn’t until a legal document ordered me to spend half my time without my children that I was able to finish school and build a career, one that depends on my willingness to experience my moods, to dive into the darkness and dwell in it.
“You will be the light of any house you go to,” my mother used to say when I was happy.
“Why are you like this?” she would ask when I was unsmiling, or if I took a joke too personally.
To live with other people is to be responsible for protecting them from your moods. Or perhaps, to protect the delicate gift of your moods from them. Being fully myself requires that I stay in the deep and not bob to the surface when begged to emerge. In Apartment, in my apartment, I contend only with myself, with my own needs.
I don’t know if I sleep better when I’m alone, but when I’m alone, I’m free to sleep poorly.
“Apartment” Copyright © 2022 by Seema Reza. Excerpted from SEX AND THE SINGLE WOMAN Copyright © 2022 compiled by Eliza Smith and Haley Swanson. Reprinted here with permission from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.